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Blue Jays left to find 2020 home after government refuses risk of MLB plan – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – The federal government’s denial of the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to host regular-season games at Rogers Centre is more a rejection of Major League Baseball’s plan for the summer, than it is about the thorough protocol put together by the club.

Consider that for the better part of two months, president and CEO Mark Shapiro, occasionally with deputy commissioner Dan Halem, had been keeping the Public Health Agency of Canada updated on the protocols the sport has put in place for playing amid the pandemic. MLB has an 113-page Operations Manual for 2020. The Blue Jays added 54 more pages in their pitch to play in the city. They had Bo Bichette, Travis Shaw and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., address health officials this week, helping earn the support from governments in Toronto and Ontario for a modified cohort quarantine.

But the absurdly divergent, often negligent approach to COVID-19 in the United States — where containment efforts are an abject failure rooted in stubborn, intentional ignorance — stands in sharp contrast to the calculated caution employed by the federal government here.

The Blue Jays’ schedule includes three trips to the outbreak epicenter of Florida, including next week to open the season in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as one to the hotspot of Georgia for a series against the Atlanta Braves. The Rays and Miami Marlins each make one visit to Toronto, while the other teams they’d be hosting will have also visited places where cases are spiking.

So even with Major League Baseball’s protocol featuring tests every other day, even with an additional test for everyone in Toronto – nasal swab instead of the less intrusive saliva to increase accuracy – the frequent border crossings were an impossible risk variable to resolve.

Hence, the travel element avoided by the NHL and NBA with their bubble-protocols — but that MLB chose to forge ahead with — ultimately sunk the Blue Jays’ endeavour. Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, said in a statement Saturday that “based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety.”

“Of particular concern,” he added, is that “the Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high.”

In saying as much, Mendicino not only highlighted the dissonant paths taken by Canada and the United States in regards to the coronavirus, but also implied that the MLB plan isn’t foolproof enough to avoid the players acting as vectors for the disease.

The 2020 season, which starts Thursday despite a continuing spike in cases in the United States, will in due course determine that. Either way, the Canadian government wanted no part of having the experiment play out here.

“The list of concerns obviously changed as conditions in the U.S. changed. That’s just a reality,” Shapiro said of the asks from Canadian health officials, who drove the process, not vice-versa. “In the end, I’m confident that we satisfied every one of those concerns except for the one we could not control, and that is that the MLB model involves cross-border travel and in-and-out flights.

“We could not change that even though I feel confident that our plan mitigated the risk there, to the level that obviously the municipality and the province were comfortable with. Certainly respect and understand that we couldn’t ultimately satisfy that at the federal level.”

And so the Blue Jays, caught somewhat off-guard by the decision after Ontario Premier Doug Ford talked about the approval as if it was a done deal , are back in limbo.

The July 29 home opener against the Washington Nationals looms and while the Blue Jays have spent the bulk of their time planning on Buffalo’s Sahlen Field in recent days, Shapiro cautioned that “it’s not a done deal,” even though he’s “confident that Buffalo is a viable alternative.”

TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., is “100 per cent seamless right now and ready to go” from a baseball perspective, “but from a player-health standpoint has some challenges,” said Shapiro.

“And then we have other alternatives that are real, that we continue to work through that may be better for us,” Shapiro added, but that he wouldn’t specify because “I don’t feel any of those are clear enough or we’ve done enough to provide you any more right now.”

“But I’m 100 per cent confident we’ll have some clarity on those in the next couple of days,” Shapiro continued, “and I’m 100 per cent confident we’ll be in the best possible situation that satisfies player health and competitiveness when we start our season.”

Time is, without a doubt, of the essence, particularly if the Blue Jays land on Buffalo, which needs significant infrastructure upgrades — particularly in terms of clubhouse spacing to meet MLB protocols and lighting. There are already club staff in the city doing the necessary legwork and the city’s mayor stumped for their arrival on Twitter, again underlining the disparity in outlooks between the two countries.

Nashville is one alternative that’s churned among the chattering classes but at this point, but there’s so little time remaining to lock this down it’s hard to envision it being anywhere other than Buffalo or Dunedin.

The final decision will belong to the Blue Jays “but Major League Baseball is playing an integral role,” said Shapiro. “The commissioner has been extremely helpful in providing guidance and in helping us understand what alternatives exist.”

The union is being kept informed of the situation, with player-rep Matt Shoemaker doing some heavy lifting there, and a Blue Jays clubhouse that’s lived with more uncertainty than any other in the majors must overcome yet another hurdle.

Remember, they went from not knowing where their camp would be held, to spending it in lockdown at the stadium and attached hotel, to being surprised that a similar fate loomed for the season, to facing what in some ways will be a 60-game road trip, with home games potentially in a minor-league stadium.

The upheaval led the Blue Jays to plan for hardship compensation for their players, as first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, that Shapiro said “took into consideration some of the logistical challenges they were dealing with.”

Livestream Toronto Blue Jays games all season with Sportsnet NOW. Plus, watch marquee MLB matchups, the post-season and World Series.

The club’s Alternative Training Site — set to house nearly 30 players who don’t make the big-league roster — is also up in the air, likely to be “at a U.S. minor-league facility closest to wherever our site is,” said Shapiro.

So, there’s a lot for players to wrap their minds around, although ace lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu offered some sound perspective.

“First of all, COVID-19 still exists, and there are hard-working people on the frontlines trying to battle the virus,” Ryu said in comments interpreted by Bryan Lee. “So, you have to respect the Canadian government’s decision to keep the nation safe.

“… Obviously, you play half of the season at home, so, there is definitely some sort of comfort level you develop over time,” he added later. “But, honestly, right now the situation itself, we just have to deal with it as players. And one of our jobs is to adapt to new types of situations. And I think we just have to rally around — not just myself, but my teammates as well — we just have to get used to a new environment. Wherever we end up, we have to get used to that place.”

Improvisation and adaptation are inherent parts of life amid the pandemic, and all the more so for the Blue Jays in comparison to the other 29 big-league clubs. If American governments had treated the coronavirus as seriously as their Canadian counterparts, maybe that wouldn’t need to be the case.

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Don’t assume Raptors have taken step back despite disappointing free agency – Sportsnet.ca

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The Toronto Raptors have traditionally weathered the absence of elite talent quite well.

For example: During the season of Kawhi, those paying attention might have been tweaked to exactly how serious a championship threat the Raptors were by how well they did when Leonard wasn’t playing.

With Leonard nicked up or simply being load-managed for more than a quarter of the season, the rest of the Raptors simply kept rolling, putting up a 17-5 mark — a better winning percentage than they had with Leonard in the lineup — and provided a preview of how good a team that relied on the likes of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet or Norm Powell might be.

Last season, with Leonard gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors got better. Even in a year when Marc Gasol missed 28 of 72 games, Serge Ibaka 17 and six of the top seven players in the Raptors’ rotation — excluding OG Anunoby — missed 18 games on average.

It didn’t seem to matter who dressed at times as the Raptors ended up playing at what would have been a 60-win pace in a regular year and finished with the second-best record in the NBA, sans Kawhi and while lurching from game to game with a different lineup due to injury.

Having bought into a ball-sharing, ball-hounding philosophy espoused by head coach Nick Nurse, the plug-n-play Raptors kept chugging along, picking up Ws and belatedly getting credit for it.

That characteristic — the ability to adapt and compete with a revolving door of sometimes unlikely personnel — is best to be kept in mind as the dust settles on what seems like a disappointing weekend of free agency.

The high point — clearly — was retaining VanVleet, the homegrown point guard who proved he was ready for primetime in his first year as a starter a season ago. Inking VanVleet was the Raptors’ stated first priority and they got it done quickly and efficiently and at a number — $85 million for four years — that works for both sides.

But losing the centre tandem of Ibaka — who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on late Saturday night — and Gasol — who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday — in a matter of 18 hours was a blow.

It’s hard to spin it any other way. It’s not necessarily a fatal blow to the Raptors’ chances of being a competitive factor in the East, but are they still realistic contenders?

The Raptors may adapt and adjust and find a way to compete and surprise the NBA again, but it seems like a less-than-ideal approach to getting the most out of Kyle Lowry’s final year under contract.

They have now lost four of their top six rotation pieces from their championship team in 18 months.

Eventually, it would seem, something has to give.

Ibaka was a positive locker room presence who put up 20 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 39 per cent from three on a high volume and contributing meaningfully on defence as well.

Gasol’s boxscore line wasn’t impressive — 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds to go along with 3.3 assists — and his offence slid further down the cliff after the hiatus. But his positional defence and rapid-fire ball movement meant the Raptors starters were plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, even when he considered his own scoring an afterthought.

Replacing 23 years of combined experience and a combined 338 playoff games doesn’t happen with a finger snap.

Still, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is the last person to show his cards at moments like this. He’s not prone to puddling when things get difficult.

“We’ll be OK,” he said via text message after Ibaka signed for two years and $19 million, trumping the Raptors’ reported offer of one year for $12 million.

“It’s how these things work,” was his message after Gasol signed a two-year deal for the veteran’s minimum — the Raptors wouldn’t offer a second year — to chase a ring with the defending champion Lakers just after dinner hour Sunday.

By then the market for free-agent centres had dried up considerably.

Still, the Raptors recovered nicely by signing Phoenix Suns centre Aron Baynes to a two-year deal (the second year a team option) for a reported $14.7 million and then giving Chris Boucher a two-year deal (again, with a team option for 2021-22) for $13.5 million, a nice payday for the rail-thin Montrealer whose slog to NBA security has been long and uphill.

So, the Raptors have a centre tandem, but the question is if they’re any better than they were on Friday?

The only proper answer is “we’ll see,” but at the very least that’s a lot of name recognition to replace.

Baynes is a nice pick-up. He’s a bruising but surprisingly quick-footed New Zealander who looks like he’s played his share of rugby in his time. The six-foot-10, 260-pounder will be 34 when the season starts, but has extended his career by adding a three-point shot to his game over the past two seasons. He shot a respectable 35 per cent from deep for the Suns last season on four attempts a game and will be appreciated for his screen setting.

The Raptors were hoping to have Baynes complement Ibaka or Gasol, I’m guessing, but not so much that they were willing to offer a second year of term to either.

Instead, the Raptors will be providing a significant opportunity to Boucher who has shown he can be wildly productive in small samples — he averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes last season — and will now get the chance to show he can do it over longer stretches.

And if Baynes or Boucher seem to be well-compensated given their profile, chances are they got a premium for being willing to accept deals where they don’t have a second-year guaranteed. As well, if the opportunity for a significant trade arises, the reality is you need some beefy contracts for salary-matching purposes.

And even with the signings (plus the addition of former Atlanta Hawks bench piece DeAndre’ Bembry) the Raptors remain about $5 million under the luxury-tax threshold, so nothing is lost there.

The Raptors’ focus in all of their business has included keeping flexibility for the summer of 2021 — right now it looks like they’ll be able to carve out enough room under the salary cap to either sign or trade for a max salary player — and clearly telegraphs what their priorities were in this off-season.

How that translates into this coming season is the more pressing question.

The temptation is to look at a team that has lost two key pieces of a championship roster and a 60-win team and assume they’ve taken a step back.

They might have. But the Raptors have in the past proven they can find a way to be competitive and to silence doubters.

Who is to say that if Anunoby takes another big step forward, Siakam grows a little more comfortable as a primary option and Powell remains as productive as he was for long stretches when healthy last season, the Raptors don’t continue steaming along?

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have earned that level of trust.

But they’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room too, with short-term deals and escape hatches all around if things don’t quite pan out.

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Mahomes leads late winning drive as Chiefs hold off Raiders – TSN

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LAS VEGAS — Even after Jason Witten‘s touchdown put the Las Vegas Raiders ahead with 1:43 to play, the mood on the Kansas City Chiefs’ sideline was calm and cool.

Not much can stop the Super Bowl champs lately. Not when they have the quarterback who makes everything go.

“We’ve got Patrick Mahomes,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said. “I’m not worried about anything.”

Mahomes threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 28 seconds to play, and the Chiefs avenged their only loss in the last 12 months with a 35-31 victory over the Raiders on Sunday night.

Mahomes passed for 348 yards and led two go-ahead scoring drives in the frantic fourth quarter for the Chiefs (9-1), who split their season series with Las Vegas (6-4) in dramatic fashion. Kansas City also took firm control of the race for its fifth straight AFC West title with an assertive comeback in its closest rivals’ home building.

“I’d take him over everybody,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Mahomes. “And I’m lucky to have him, as we are as a football team, as we are as a city. When you’re behind, he can make things happen.”

The Chiefs’ supreme confidence in their Super Bowl MVP wasn’t shaken when they lost 40-32 at home to Las Vegas last month, prompting the Raiders to take a celebratory victory lap around Arrowhead Stadium in their buses.

Kansas City also didn’t worry when Mahomes threw only his second interception of the season late in the first half of the rematch.

And when Derek Carr found Witten for the Raiders’ go-ahead score, Mahomes said he knew what would happen next.

“We’re going to score,” Mahomes said. “I just didn’t know if it was going to be overtime, or we were going to win it.”

The Chiefs didn’t need a tying field goal: They only needed 75 seconds to march 75 yards, with Mahomes going 6 of 7 on the drive.

Kelce, who caught eight passes for 127 yards, slipped free of Las Vegas’ safeties for the easy winning catch and then went back to the sideline to give a joking shoulder massage to Reid. The Chiefs can laugh at fourth-quarter tension, thanks to the man behind centre.

“He turns it up when it matters the most, and he was out there showing out tonight,” Kelce said about Mahomes.

Carr passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, but the Raiders couldn’t match their offensive excellence in Kansas City last month. The Chiefs have won five straight since that defeat, and the Raiders made just enough minor mistakes to prevent them from getting out of reach of Mahomes’ comeback ability.

“It’s as good as you can play,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Carr. “He had four or five balls that were magnificent throws that we could have caught that we didn’t make the play on. He played tremendous tonight. He played almost flawless.”

The Raiders led 24-21 on Darren Waller’s TD catch on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Mahomes led a 91-yard scoring drive midway through the period capped by Le’Veon Bell‘s first TD for Kansas City on a 6-yard pitch.

Carr and the Raiders replied with a crisp drive ending on Witten’s 1-yard catch just inside the goal line for his second TD with the Raiders and the 74th of his career.

“You’re really excited,” Carr said. “(But) they’re a real good offence, too. They go down the field, they score. The wave, the range of emotion — you try your best to stay even-keeled. You try your best not to get frustrated.”

That’s not easy when your counterpart is Mahomes.

Daniel Sorensen picked off a heave to midfield by Carr with 19 seconds left, and the Chiefs kneeled out their 18th win in the last 19 games since Nov. 10, 2019.

Nelson Agholor caught a TD pass and Josh Jacobs rushed for a score for the Raiders, who dropped to 2-3 at Allegiant Stadium in their new hometown.

Tyreek Hill caught an early touchdown pass for the Chiefs, and Edwards-Helaire rushed for 69 yards and two TDs in a fierce rivalry game. These teams’ mutual distaste was obvious, with plenty of confrontations and yapping after whistles. Kelce and Johnathan Abram had particularly active mouths.

“The rivalry between the Raiders and the Chiefs, I think, is a great thing for football,” said Reid, who improved to 19-3 after his bye week. “It’s great to be a part of it. I look forward to more future challenges like the ones they presented against us.”

The teams traded touchdown drives on the opening four possessions. Agholor made an exceptional toe-tap 17-yard TD catch to end the first quarter, but Edwards-Helaire’s first TD evened it at 14.

RARE PICK

Mahomes drove the Chiefs deep into Raiders territory right before halftime, but Trayvon Mullen snared a pass intended for Demarcus Robinson at the Raiders 3 to preserve Vegas’ 17-14 lead. Mahomes had matched Drew Brees’ NFL record by throwing 26 touchdown passes this season before his second interception.

SHORT-HANDED

Las Vegas’ defence hung in against the high-powered Chiefs despite having nine players on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week, essentially preventing the defence from practicing for its toughest opponent. Six of those players returned for the game, but the Raiders still played without starters Cory Littleton and Clelin Ferrell.

INJURIES

Chiefs: WR Byron Pringle hurt his ankle, but returned to the game.

Raiders: RT Sam Young missed the game with a knee injury, forcing Vegas to use its seventh offensive line combination in 10 games. … DL David Irving injured his knee.

UP NEXT

Chiefs: Visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

Raiders: Visit the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Report: F1 champ Hamilton to be knighted – TSN

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Recent seven-time Formula 1 Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton will be awarded a knighthood in the United Kingdom, as first reported by The Sun.

Hamilton will receive the knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list.

Aside from Hamilton’s dominance on the race track, the 35-year-old has also notably been a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

After his record-tying seventh World Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton was congratulated by the Queen of England via the Royal Family’s Twitter account.

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